Guacamole Makers Are Super Busy

Times Staff Writer

Al Valerio may have to work today, but even so the lifelong Raider fan will possess a key ingredient for a massive Super Bowl party:

Guacamole. Tens of thousands of pounds of the zesty green goo, which has become a staple of Super Bowl celebrations worldwide.

As production manager for the Santa Paula guacamole plant run by Calavo Growers of California, Valerio, 31, is on the front lines of football's growing obsession with the avocado dip.

More than 40 million pounds of avocados are expected to be devoured on game day, the most ever for a U.S. sporting event. That would produce enough dip to cover the field of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, site of Super Bowl XXXVII, end zone to end zone in a 5-foot layer of the pea-green paste.

Much of the dip has been churned out of the farming town of Santa Paula. For the past month, Valerio has overseen a doubling of production at Calavo's guacamole plant, pumping out as much as 200,000 pounds a day for football fans as far away as Kuwait and Japan.

"It's really been hectic," said the Santa Paula native, who along with the plant's 58 other employees has been putting in 12-hour days to meet big game demand.

"When you think Super Bowl, you think chips and dip and guacamole," he said. "It's been growing in popularity, and business-wise it has been very good for us."

It's also good for California avocado growers, especially those in San Diego County -- the nation's avocado capital -- who were pummeled in the past year by pestilence and other problems.

From a fruit fly infestation to recent Santa Ana winds that knocked millions of dollars' worth of fruit off trees, many growers have been struggling just to stay afloat.

But with the Super Bowl in their backyard, growers have been taking advantage of every opportunity to promote the pear-shaped fruit, including setting up a booth at the NFL media center at San Diego's convention center.

Those efforts have paid off in a flood of publicity, including spots on CNN, "Good Morning America" and MTV.

"It has been terrific for our industry," said third-generation grower Jerome Stehly, who played host to an MTV crew last week in his orchard near Valley Center, about 50 miles north of San Diego.

Stehly, who is chairman of the California Avocado Commission, said that after scrambling to meet Super Bowl orders, he was prepared last week to temporarily shut down his harvesting operation. Then came a call from a packinghouse telling him to keep at it.

"They said, 'Please keep going; we've got orders to fill,' " Stehly said. "That's one of the best things a farmer can hear."

Even without the Super Bowl, January signals the kickoff of California's avocado harvest.

The state's 6,000 growers racked up a record $358 million in sales for the 2001-02 season, harvesting 400 million pounds of fruit on 58,000 acres. California is home to 86% of the nation's avocado crop, with nearly half the state's crop coming from San Diego County.

The California Avocado Commission began promoting avocados as a Super Bowl staple in the early 1990s after growers noticed that the game coincided with the start of their harvest.

Super Bowl Sunday is now the second-biggest avocado consumption day of the year, behind Cinco de Mayo, and the largest consumption day for any U.S. sporting event. And it has helped growers carve out new markets for the fist-sized fruit once considered just an exotic delicacy.

"We've been working for years to encourage people to eat avocados, and now I think that's really caught on and taken on a life of its own," said Roger Essick, who farms avocados in Ojai and Fillmore and serves on the commission's board of directors.

"Our strongest markets are still in the West and the Southwest, but [the popularity] of avocados continues to grow in other parts of the country as people discover them, get used to using them and get hooked on them," he added.

That rising popularity is evident at the Santa Paula guacamole plant, believed to be the largest and perhaps only commercial guacamole processor in the nation.

Opened in 1975, the processing plant pumps out as much as 20 million pounds of guacamole and other avocado-based items each year. It produces more than 100 sizes and varieties of products for restaurants and retailers, as well as vendors who sell them under their own labels.

In 2000, the plant accounted for about a quarter of Calavo's $200 million in sales, then a record for the company owned by a collection of growers from San Luis Obispo to San Diego -- not bad for a venture launched merely to provide an outlet for fruit too damaged to go to market.

"The growth has just been absolutely amazing, especially for the Super Bowl," said George Hatfield, a Calavo vice president at the plant where laborers don lab coats and surgical masks to do their assembly line work.

"I guess people like to have something convenient," he added. "Something that won't distract them from the game."

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